SpaceX discusses progress toward human missions of Dragon/Falcon 9

by Chris Gebhardt

While continuing to impress even themselves with their ability to successfully propulsively land Falcon 9 first stages on land and in the ocean, SpaceX is continuing to progress on its human spaceflight endeavors, with the company’s Dragon spacecraft, Falcon 9, and ground operations development all keeping pace for a second quarter 2017 debut of the human-rated Dragon spacecraft before the first human Dragon launch by the end of 2017.

Humans on Dragons:

As one of two companies to receive funding and contracts for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP), SpaceX has spent years developing its human-rated Dragon spacecraft to help fill a crucial aspect of spaceflight left void by NASA following the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program in July 2011.

Much has been written about SpaceX’s accomplishments throughout the life of its CCP contracts, and the company is continuing to make progress toward an eventual launch of humans aboard Dragon next year.

Most recently, following the Pad Abort Test in May 2015, SpaceX completed Avionics Testbed Activation in June 2015 before pressing on to the Critical Design Review (CDR) of the human-rated Dragon capsule in October 2015.

2016-06-22-235215This was followed by the Launch Site Operational Readiness Review (LSORR) in November 2015 before Propulsive Descent Testing, Docking System Qualification, and the Delta CDR rounded out the year in December 2015.

While most of this progress has been behind the scenes, the most visible aspect of the company’s success has been its stride toward reusability of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket.

Following the first successful propulsion landing of an orbital rocket in December 2015, SpaceX has racked up a series of landing successes – to the point where the company has begun to look at storage space issues now that its Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center is full of landed rocket stages.

2016-06-23-003552At the recent Space Expo in Pasadena, CA, Garrett Reisman, Director of Space Operations for SpaceX, spoke about this reusability success.

“We’re really excited about what’s happening with reusability because it will allow us to drastically reduce the cost of getting things into space, which will enable all kinds of new architectures.”

SpaceX’s desire to reuse the first stage of the Falcon 9 is not only driven by a desire to reduce the cost of space exploration.

2016-06-22-235632The company is also using the propulsive landings as a way to practically and physically test landing systems in a near-Mars atmospheric environment.

“Earth’s upper atmosphere is also a really good analogue for Mars’ atmosphere,” noted Reisman.  “When you get up high enough, the density and consistency of the atmosphere is very similar to what you face during Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) on Mars.

“So every time we land, we take one of these rockets and we perform hypersonic retrograde propulsion, the data from which we’re sharing with JPL because it’s the first time this has ever been demonstrated on a major scale.”

2016-06-22-235839To this end, Reisman pointed out that the Falcon 9 first stage landings are really serving as test beds for the EDL systems of eventual Mars missions.

“Every time you see one of those rockets coming back, not only is it enabling a whole new paradigm for launching things into space, but it’s also bringing us one step closer to Mars.”

While SpaceX continues to work on refining its Falcon 9 landing capabilities and the data that provides for EDL operations on Mars, the company is also progressing toward a series of several major upcoming milestones to enable human flights on Dragon.

2016-06-22-235955Complementing the LSORR completed last year will be a crew LSORR, followed by a full-scale Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) test.

Speaking at the Space Expo, Reisman discussed this ECLSS test, stating “We’re building a flight-like capsule that we’re going to have on the ground in Hawthorne.  We’re gonna put all our life-support systems on board, close the door, and make sure it works.”

This will be followed by the Delta CDR 2, which will help pave the way for propulsion module testing and spacesuit qualification.

2016-06-23-002311For spacesuit qualification, Reisman noted that the suits will be put through a series of solo tests as well as human tests.

“We’re going to finish our spacesuits and qualify them, including vacuum chamber testing with suited human subjects.”

This will then lead to the Flight Test Without Crew Certification Review, which is the final certification SpaceX needs to launch the Demo 1 uncrewed mission of the human-rated Dragon spacecraft in the second quarter of 2017.

Speaking of the Demo 1 mission, Reisman stated that the flight will be a “Complete end-to-end test of the crew mission, just fully autonomous.  It’s gonna go up, rendezvous and dock with the Space Station, we’re gonna drop some stuff off while we’re there, and then bring some stuff home.”

2016-06-23-002650Demo 1 will use the exact hardware, software, and operations planned for use on crewed Dragon missions and will therefore give SpaceX and NASA a chance to see how all of the human Dragon’s systems operate in an integrated fashion during actual flight.

Once the Demo 1 flight is complete, SpaceX will proceed forward with parachute qualification before performing an in-flight abort test.

This in-flight abort test will demonstrate the Dragon’s ability to separate safely during the most difficult region of first-stage flight.

“We’ve already proved we have enough gas in the tank [with the Pad Abort Test], now we have to prove that we have enough oomph from the engines to separate in one of the most difficult points of the trajectory,” noted Reisman.

2016-06-23-002835“We’re gonna go up around MaxQ, and around that point we’re gonna separate from the Falcon 9 and demonstrate we can do that in the most demanding environments that the vehicle sees during ascent.”

While no official target timeframe was been given for this in-flight abort test, it’s anticipated that it will occur sometime in the second or third quarter of 2017, after the Demo 1 flight and prior to Demo 2 at the end of that year.

Once the in-flight abort test is complete, SpaceX will proceed through the Design Certification Review and the Flight Test Readiness Review, the final review before the Demo 2 crewed flight in the last part of 2017.

2016-06-23-002948Demo 2 will, essentially, be a reflight of the Demo 1 mission, except this time it will carry a crew.

“We’re planning to fly Demo 2 by the end of 2017,” stated Reisman at the Space Expo.  “This will mark, hopefully, the first time that we restore the capability of launching people to space from America.”

Once Demo 2 is complete, SpaceX will perform the Operations Readiness Review before the final Certification Review (CR) with NASA.

Once the CR is accepted by NASA, SpaceX will be granted permission to launch up to six Post Certification Missions (PCMs) with humans to the International Space Station.

But the company’s work will not stop with the commencement of PCMs.

2016-06-22-233131SpaceX has also been hard at work on a Precision Propulsive Hover technology for the Dragon spacecraft to eliminate the need to parachute gently into the ocean and instead return Dragon missions directly to land.

“The same technology needed for the pad abort is the same propulsion and guidance navigation and control needed to land Dragon propulsively,” noted Reisman.

“So just like we land a rocket on the ground or at sea, what we want to do eventually is not land anymore with parachutes with Dragon.  We want to land Dragon propulsively on land.  And we are already doing testing to get us to that point.”

(Images: Via NASA, SpaceX Derrick Stamos for NSF and L2 (suit is unofficial and notional from L2, early 2015) – including SLS renders from L2 artist Nathan Koga – The full gallery of Nathan’s (SpaceX Dragon to MCT, SLS, Commercial Crew and more) L2 images can be *found here*)

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